HONG KONG (AP) — A Hong Kong pro-democracy activist said Friday he was briefly abducted and tortured by suspected mainland Chinese security agents who stapled his legs as a warning against sending a signed photo of soccer star Lionel Messi to a dissident's widow.
The strange case follows a string of other incidents that have stoked fears among Hong Kong residents that Beijing is encroaching on the former British colony's wide autonomy and civil liberties that are unknown on the mainland.
Howard Lam recounted his ordeal to reporters and showed them the staples still stuck in his legs, which he wanted documented before reporting to police and getting hospital treatment.
He said his captors warned him against sending the photo to Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last month while in custody. Liu was reputed to be a soccer fan and Messi follower.
Before Liu's death of cancer on July 13, Lam had written to FC Barcelona to ask for a signed photo of the Argentine player that he could forward to Liu because he thought it would cheer him up.
The photo arrived too late, so Lam said he would then try to get it to Liu Xia, and had posted about it on Facebook. Her whereabouts since her husband's death are unclear and her Beijing home is surrounded by security agents.
Earlier this week, Lam said he had received a call from an acquaintance on the mainland who warned him not to send the photo to Liu Xia.
Then, on Thursday afternoon, unidentified men grabbed him on a busy shopping street, saying, "Mr. Lam, we would like a chat with you." They forced him into a car and made him smell something that caused him to lose consciousness.
When he awoke after being hit on the legs, he was tied up, blindfolded and stripped to his underwear. His captors spoke Mandarin, not the Cantonese that predominates in Hong Kong.
They interrogated him about the photo and Liu Xia.
"Do you know Liu Xia?" they said. "Why are you causing trouble?"
He said they hit him in the stomach repeatedly and said, "You're a Christian, aren't you? So here's a cross for you." Then they used a stapler on his thighs to make Xs.
"They warned me not to send it to Liu Xia," he said.
Lam said he was drugged again and woke up on a beach early Friday.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo promised to "fully investigate" the case. He said it was illegal for outside law enforcement agencies to operate in Hong Kong.
The incident has rekindled fears that Beijing is tightening its grip on Chinese-ruled Hong Kong. Many residents fear that China's communist rulers are backtracking on a promise to let the city have considerable autonomy following its 1997 handover from Britain.
Other recent cases include the secret detentions of a group of Hong Kong booksellers and the disappearance of a Chinese-Canadian tycoon from his downtown hotel suite. They're believed to have been carried out by mainland Chinese agents, who are not authorized to operate in Hong Kong.
Also adding to worries is a controversial plan by the government last month to station mainland immigration agents at a high-speed cross-border rail terminal under construction.
Opposition lawmakers say it violates the city's Basic Law constitution prohibiting Chinese law enforcement from operating on Hong Kong soil.